★★★★☆ Mozart and the two Haydns prove a crowd-pleaser for period ensemble.

It’s an exciting time to be alive for the Australian Haydn Ensemble: a new chairman of the board; a new high-profile patron in former NSW Governor Dame Marie Bashir; their debut CD released by ABC Classics and this concert, their first in the City Recital Hall. Filling the Utzon Room at the Opera House is an achievement, but being able to pack out the ground floor at Angel Place deserves praise indeed. And all of this has happened in a handful of seasons since the group was established in 2011 under Artistic Director Skye McIntosh.

For this celebratory tour the AHE invited along Erin Helyard, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Pinchgut Opera and the Orchestra of the Antipodes, to direct them from the fortepiano and perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14. Led by McIntosh, it was immediately apparent that this is a crack team. The strings have that light and airy quality so integral to the Classical sound but with plenty of muscle for the Sturm und Drang moments. The woodwind section is first class, solidly and reliably augmented by the Australian Brandenburg horn team of Darryl Poulson and Doree Dixon.

The programme opened with Michael Haydn’s Symphony No 25. Up until the beginning of the last century this was thought to have been Mozart’s 37th Symphony because he had copied out Haydn’s score and added a short adagio introduction. He also deleted the bassoon solo in the second movement but this performance, jokingly spruiked as a “world premiere” by Helyard, reinstated it, much to the delight of bassoonists Simon Rickard and Jackie Newcombe. That movement also featured some fine work from the oboes of Emma Black and Ingo Muller.

Helyard proved a dazzling soloist on the borrowed fortepiano, a replica of one owned by the composer. Energetic and dynamic, his command of the keyboard is matched only by his tight control of the orchestra. The four movements ticked over like a finely tuned high-end limousine. The work is one of four piano concertos Mozart dashed off in a mere eight weeks.

Cellist Daniel Yeadon needs little introduction to Sydney audiences, being a regular contributor to the Australian Chamber Orchestra as well as leading early music ensembles. He showed his impeccable credentials – he was for many years cellist with the English Fitzwilliam String Quartet as well as with Florilegium – in a lovely performance of Joseph Haydn’s much-loved C Major Concerto, the manuscript of which was only rediscovered in 1964. The concerto, with its memorable melodies and stormy passages in the outer movements, exploits the instrument’s middle and higher registers with some challenging runs and Yeadon’s accuracy and warm tone were never in doubt. As part of his approach to the work the cellist listened to several early recordings, including ones by the great violinist Joseph Joachim, attempting to capture their tone, particularly the use of narrow vibrato as well as their free use of tempo. 

More Storm und Drang (with a touch of the farmyard) to finish with a splendid reading of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 83, La Poule (The Hen), the first violins and oboes contributing in the first movement the clucking effects which give it its nickname. This was definitely a refreshing and free-range performance with the musicians radiating a sense of fun and enjoyment – none of your factory-farmed interpretations here.

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